Choosing not to look: Representation, repatriation, and holocaust atrocity photography

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This essay considers, from ethical and historical - critical perspectives, alternatives to unconditional public access to Holocaust atrocity photographs. Photographic images have become the common coin of public awareness and historical information about the Holocaust. For the generations immediately following the genocide, atrocity photos and images of Nazi crimes served as vital testimony. For succeeding generations, however, access to certain "recirculated" images (Barbie Zelizer) has created a sense of familiarity with the Holocaust and with the National Socialist era that may prevent, rather than facilitate, engagement with the historical subject, particularly for students. Few of the victims of the Shoah pictured in either the best known or the least circulated images were willing subjects. As such, the bulk of Holocaust and National Socialist photography should perhaps fall under the same category as the results of Nazi medical experiments: they have been rendered inadmissible because they are ethically compromised materials, made without the participants' consent. While I am not advocating the wholesale destruction of Holocaust photographs, I will suggest that removing them from view or "repatriating" them might serve Holocaust memory better than their reduction to atrocious objects of banal attention. Just as the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 provided a mechanism for the reclassification of human remains, from ethnographic to spiritually sacred artifacts, we should consider what a similar reclassification of Holocaust photographs could offer. Have Holocaust atrocity photographs reached the limits of their usefulness as testimony?

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-330
Number of pages22
JournalHistory and Theory
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Philosophy


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